Internet Censorship: Chinese Internet Slang

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Chinese netizens have discovered their own ways of bypassing this kind of censorship. In response to keyword blocking, netizens have developed an internet slang that enables them to comment on sensitive political issues without getting censored. This ironic wordplay is called ‘egao’, an internet culture that uses irony, satire and dark humour to mock and ridicule people in positions of power . For example, the phrase ‘Chinese baptism’ (Zhongguoshi xili) refers to the Chinese government, where baptism (xili) is a reference to President Xi Jinping and current Premier of State Li Keqiang. The phonetically similar sounding words ‘river crab’ and ‘harmonization’ are slang terms for online censorship in China. These phrases were born in response to the government’s justification of censorship as a part of Former President Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society”. So, if a netizen’s blog gets compromised as a result of censorship, the blog is often described as ‘harmonized’. The grass mud-horse on the other hand, which phonetically resembles a profane insult in Chinese is used as a slang term for online deviance. In this way, the grass mud-horse and the river crab have been incorporated by netizens into a Chinese internet mythological tale, wherein the two are enemies. In 2009, the grass mud-horse became a phenomenon, both online and offline. A song titled ‘Song of the Grass Mud-Horse’ was viewed over 1.4 million times, a cartoon featuring the creature got 250,000 views, and figurines and toys of the animal were being sold in stores. The grass mud-horse soon became a mascot for resistance to censorship on the internet. It also made people question the legitimacy and control of the Chinese censors. Xiao Qiang, a professor of journalism at the University of California explained that the vast online population joining the chorus showed how strongly the expression of resistance resonated. Wang Xiaofeng, a journalist and blogger based in Beijing, said that the little animal neatly illustrates the futility of censorship .

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A 72-feet-tall inflatable toad floating on a giant lily pad in Yuyuantan Park in Beijing was originally built to invite tourists, but it ended up inviting comparisons to Chinese President Jiang Zemin online in 2014. As a result, the word ‘toad’ was censored online. King-wa Fu, a University of Hong Kong journalism professor explains how although the resemblance isn’t quite clear, “people find the association”. They have been referring to Jiang as a ‘toad’ even before the giant toad came into the picture; ‘toad’ had become a household name for Jiang by then. This is just one example of the many words used to refer to Chinese politicians on the web, to avoid getting censored. Former Senior Leader of the Communist Party of China Zhou Yongkang is referred to as ‘Master Kang’ from the instant noodles brand which shares the same character ‘Kang’. Xi Jinping is called by the name of his favourite steamed pork buns to evade censors.

Not all netizens are rebellious online warriors who are willing to go to extreme lengths in order to express their dissatisfaction with the intensity of censorship in China. Some people simply comply with the rules of censorship as a result of helplessness. For example, one student explained the laborious process of trying to find sensitive words in a post, which involves clearing different words till the message gets posted. Another student claims to have written words related to Tiananmen in pinyin in order to pass the barrier of censorship. During the Jasmine Revolutions of 2011, the characters for ‘tomorrow’ were banned in order to prevent activists from organizing any kind of gatherings or contributing to the protests in any way. A word as simple as ‘tomorrow’ made its way to the list of sensitive words, demonstrating the severity of censorship online. Circumventing this kind of excessive blocking of innocent posts has proved to be a nuisance for many users of the Chinese internet.

Another method of limiting people’s access to censored information is search engine filtering, in which certain results of a particular search are blocked out by the system. International search engines like Yahoo and Bing and domestic ones like Baidu, 360 Search and Soso are subject to this kind of filtering. According to research conducted by comparing results of search engines in China and those of abroad, some anomalies were detected which can be useful in understanding the filtering process. For example, Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, recorded a grand total of just 34 hits on Google China, while reported 230,000 hits . Clearly, Chai Ling is a highly censored keyword on the Chinese internet. In some cases, when a search result would lead to a censored page, Yahoo in China is known to give the same message each time: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results may not appear.” In order to circumvent this kind of censorship, one has the option of accessing copies of previously indexed webpages known as cached pages, which are often hosted by search engines. However, the government may have targeted the caching services of certain engines for blocking, making it harder for people to visit censored pages.

Having the world’s most populous internet spaces, China is torn between marketization on a global scale and controlling the information going in and out of the country. Chinese citizens have very little freedom online as everything is controlled and censored by the State. The government tries its best to wipe certain content off the face of the internet, but netizens are constantly figuring out ways to retrieve that content. “Internet is only used by the state as the savior of government so that it cannot be as a tool against the government”. The netizens are often left in the dark this manner, forever questioning the content they read on their screens, wondering how much of what they see and read on their screens is true and how much has been hidden from them by the government. 

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